Celebrated on February 8, Joséphine Bakhita is the first Sudanese saint. Victim of the slave trade, she was sold into slavery at the age of 7, before freeing herself by joining the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Italy.
Joséphine Bakhita was born around 1869 in the Darfur region of western Sudan. His father is chief of the Nubian tribe of Dadjo (a group which brings together several peoples of Central Africa). She grew up in a wealthy family, but at the age of 7, her life changed.
In 1877, Joséphine was kidnapped by slave traders. This is a double tragedy for the siblings. Three years earlier, her older sister was also a victim of human trafficking. Joséphine is taken from market to market and sold to several families. Torn from her home, she is traumatized by the violence she endures. She forgets her first name. Her tormentors rename her “Bakhita” which means “the lucky one” in Arabic.
A tested childhood
Her ordeal eased somewhat in 1883. Then aged 14, the young girl was acquired by the Italian consul in Khartoum. The latter considers her with more humanity. No more reprimands, punishments and other humiliating treatments. When the diplomat leaves Sudan for Italy, Joséphine Bakhita implores him to take her with him. Which he accepts. Once arrived, he gave it as a gift to the Michieli family, Italians also returning from Sudan. Madame Michieli takes a liking to Joséphine to whom she entrusts the care of watching over her daughter.
The call of Christianity
While Joséphine did not receive any religious initiation during her childhood, she discovered Christianity in the Michieli family. Her faith was born when Madame had to return to Sudan and left her daughter and Josephine to the Canossian sisters in Venice. It is a real revelation for the Sudanese slave who during her young life has known nothing but harshness and instability. When her mistress returns, she refuses to follow her and decides to stay in the convent. The case was submitted to the courts, which rendered their decision on November 29, 1889: Bakhita was 20 years old and slavery no longer existed in Italy, she was free to lead her life as she wished. In the love of God, she finds her freedom.
Now freed, Joséphine Bakhita was baptized on January 9, 1890 by the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice, Mgr Domenico Agostini. She receives confirmation and takes the name Joséphine. For the first time since her kidnapping, she makes her own choices. In 1893, she entered the novitiate of the Institute of Catechists in Venice. Three years later, in 1896, she took her first vows in Verona, where the first congregation of the “Christians” was founded.
The journey through two world conflicts
Joséphine was transferred in 1902 to Schio, in the Veneto region, where she lived until the end of her life. When the First World War broke out, the sisters’ house was used as a military hospital and the Canossian woman devoted herself entirely to those who crossed the threshold.
She continued her spiritual commitment by pronouncing her perpetual vows in 1927. Although at the convent she was mainly responsible for the kitchen, she went on a mission across Italy to spread the gospel and make its history known. The sisters will tell it to him in a work entitled Wonderful story.
Much loved by the local population for her humility, simplicity and smile, she is affectionately nicknamed the “Little Black Mother”. During the Second World War, the town of Schio suffered several bombings, but was not affected. The population attributes this protection to Joséphine Bakhita whose reputation for holiness will increase.
Patroness of Sudan
Joséphine Bakhita died on February 8, 1947, at the age of 78, following a long illness. The former slave was beatified in 1992 and proclaimed patroness of Sudan in 1995. She was canonized five years later in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
His body rests today in the Church of the Holy Family in Schio. It is possible to ask for his intercession when praying for an end to modern slavery.
Prayer of Joséphine Bakhita
“O Lord, if I could fly there to my people and preach your goodness to all with loud cries: Oh, how many souls I could win for you! First of all my mother and my father, my brothers, my sister still a slave… all, all the poor blacks of Africa, make, O Jesus, that they too know you and love you! Amen”
In 2019, our journalist met the novelist Véronique Olmi who passionately recounts the incredible journey of this nun in her work Bakhita (Ed. Pocket book, 480 p.; €9.40).